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5 Things You Might Not Know about Stonehenge

Historical monument Stonehenge at night

Unless you’ve been living underneath a 25-ton sarsen monolith, you’ve likely heard of Stonehenge. You might even have it nestled in your brain’s pleasure center, between things that maybe are magic and other things that never change. It’s the sweet spot for cultural nostalgia.

In that spirit, let’s ruin our sense of mystery about Stonehenge by dispelling some of the magic in our minds on the topic. Magic, after all, is simply a misunderstood phenomenon. If you’d like, you can read on to kill some of the magic behind Stonehenge. Is the structure mysterious and at least a bit baffling? Sure, but that doesn’t mean archaeologists haven’t made progress on Stonehenge spoilers.

Oh, and if you have no idea what Stonehenge is, it’s a big ol’ circle monument with a bunch of very large stones on it, located on Salisbury Plain in England.

Migrants from Turkey Built It

At the time of writing this article, if you search “who built Stonehenge” on Google, you’ll get a big white box in your face with the word “Druids” in it. It’s weird because, if you click through, you’re brought to a page that explains how this isn’t true.

The Druids were a class of mysterious Celtic high priests, so I’m already skeptical that they’d be responsible for big construction projects. Still, maybe the implication is that they served as general contractors. Either way, it’s moot—they’re on the list because seventeenth-century antiquarian John Aubrey thought Druids were cool.

To be fair, Aubrey didn’t have the benefit of DNA analysis. I mean, the History Channel knows about DNA, and they still think aliens built Stonehenge, so I can’t be too hard on Aubrey—he worked with what he had.

Other theories over the years have included Danes, Romans, Saxons, Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and even Merlin. Basically, every group of people (or just Merlin) is known to have spent some time around Salisbury, either in reality or in fiction.

It’s a good thing, then that we have science because the real answer is something we may not have guessed. Remains buried at Stonehenge (it was used for burials, among other things) have DNA indicating Anatolian origins—they were the descendants of Mediterranean immigrants.

It’s a long story (thousands of years), but the takeaway is this: dark-skinned, blue-eyed hunter-gatherers initially inhabited the British Isles. Folks from Iberia around 4,000 BCE (more or less) supplanted them. Those people were descended from populations in Anatolia (now Turkey), and they brought agriculture to England. Agriculture brings with it a population boom over foraging cultures (you can sustain way more people with farming, rather than just eating what you find).

Cultures with lots of people can do things like, say, build massive monuments. So, it’s no surprise that as the culture of these ethnically Anatolians spread across the Mediterranean, through Europe, and to Spain and Portugal (Iberia), they brought with them a tradition of megalithic monument building—Stonehenge being perhaps the most famous example.

It Was Totally Possible to Build

This should go without saying, given that it was built. Still, those damn rocks look so heavy (because they are), and Neolithic people didn’t have hydraulic cranes handy. Logic naturally follows that they lacked the knowledge or technology to have built Stonehenge without help from a race of highly advanced spacefarers, who flew all the way to Earth to help farmers roughly shape and move rocks into a pattern.

That’s insane, of course. It’d be like if aliens arrived today and gave us a car engine that gets 60 miles per gallon. I mean, not bad, but we could have figured that out ourselves, and I’m pretty sure any species of alien advanced enough to reach another solar system could probably come up with something slightly more disruptive to show us.

So, instead, we have to fall back on the simplest possible explanation: humans built it all by themselves. But how? The same way humans do everything we do that’s halfway impressive: time, sweat, hands, and math.

The first bit of Stonehenge was just an earthwork enclosure. That’s easy enough—we’d expect our ancestors to be capable of mounding up some dirt in a big circle.

Aerial view of Stonehenge
Nicholas Grey/Shutterstock

Later, the massive sarsen stones and smaller (but still heavy) bluestones were erected. This is the part where modern people start to doubt their ancestors. Twenty-five tons (or more) is just too much weight to erect, let alone transport across the countryside from where it was found. The big ones—the sarsens—were probably collected within 20 miles of Stonehenge. The bluestones, between two and five tons apiece, came from farther away in southwest Wales.

Already we can see some logic here made necessary by how hard it is to transport big rocks: the largest ones were found closer to the site. And yes, hauling these stones over land and water would be hard as hell. But people do hard things, and you’d be amazed at what you can pull around once you get enough hands doing the pulling. (We still have questions about their exact method of transportation, but it could have been via sledges or greased wood tracks—as the stones were too heavy for timber rollers.)

Next, we have the shaping of stones and the precision of their assembly (e.g., tongue-and-groove joints; horizontal lintel stones being perfectly level, despite sloping ground). Well, that’s easy enough: this was contemporary carpentry methodology, just applied to stone. It would have taken longer than working with wood, but the concept isn’t much different.

Now, perhaps the hardest-to-imagine bit: raising the vertical stones and placing the horizontal lintel stones on top. Super hard work with Neolithic technology, to be sure—but possible. Dig a large, sloping hole; raise the stone in that hole using plant-fiber ropes, an A-frame, and counterweights; then fill in the hole with gravel to pack it tightly in place.

For the lintels: construct sloping Earth mounds leading to the tops of the base stones, drag the lintels up said slopes and into place, then remove the dirt (or whatever other temporary platform built to accomplish the same purpose). The stones stay in place due to the tongue-and-groove joints.

Bam! No spaceships or weird, star-shaped Japanese screwdrivers necessary.

Stonehenge Was Built in Stages

“Good grief, that sounds like a lot of work,” you may be saying. Yes, indeed, but at least it was spread way out over time. Time makes very hard things less hard.

Take The Shawshank Redemption, for example. It is purportedly a story about hope (I guess?), but really it’s about how with enough motivation—and 19 years to kill—you can break out of prison using a rock hammer.

Everything that seems hard to us now about building Stonehenge has to be taken with the context of scale in mind. The first stage, the circle, was built around 3,000 BCE. The stones we mostly think of today were added 500 years later, and they weren’t arranged into their current configuration until 2,200 BCE (300 years later).  So, the whole thing was built over around 800 years. That’s plenty of time to figure this thing out; plenty of generations to take a stab at the structure; plenty of time for human ingenuity to figure it out.

Check out this PDF for a graphical construction timeline and Stonehenge layout plan.

Stonehenge Might Have Had Multiple Purposes

With the big “how’d they build it?” question at least partially out of the way, we can address the other big one: why’d these Neolithic agricultural people originating from Anatolia build Stonehenge at all?

It seems like we’re collectively waiting for one true answer to this question, but I’m not sure we’ll ever get it. And, that’s not because it’ll never be possible to figure out (we may already have)—but instead that it likely served several purposes over time.

These people weren’t keeping detailed history books, so you have to imagine that the people who, say, rearranged the bluestones around 2,200 BCE, might have had very different ideas about Stonehenge than those responsible for the original bluestone configuration in 2,500 BCE. And, the people in 3,000 BCE may have just used the site for cremations.

We know that Stonehenge functions as a seasonal calendar, with the stones aligning with the position of the sun during solstices. This fits in with the Anatolian genetics: solstices and the changing of seasons had great meaning for agricultural peoples. (We’re still living in this agricultural timeline, and we still celebrate holidays that more or less mark changes in season, today.)

But, obviously, Stonehenge didn’t act as a calendar before the stones were placed there. And, the stones didn’t stay put but were rearranged at least once. If we take the stone placement as artistic expression, then these expressions changed over time.

My read on this: the throughline here is that even before the stones themselves, Stonehenge was already an important sacred burial ground. Then, around 2,500 BCE, some folks wanted to build a monument, and they chose to build it in an important place. If you worship your ancestors, the first Stonehenge would have been a prime piece of real estate to imbue your new structure with some old magic. At the very least, the site would have been familiar and historically significant by that point.

By the time it reached its third and (so far) final iteration around 2,200 BCE, its renovators may have known little about its original purpose, so they invented a new one. And, with all that labor poured in, who’s to say that Stonehenge didn’t become a one-stop-shop for cremations, seasonal festivals, rituals, etc.?

Some people use the old mall parking lot for Wiffle ball; others use it to sell drugs. A decade before that, it was a hot spot for shoppers. Sometimes, it serves as the grounds for the summer fair. Places stay put, while things change around them.

Technically, Not a Henge

I love English, but the language is a total mess, and “Stonehenge” is a good example. The site’s name comes from Middle English “stanheng,” which is stan (stone) and heng (a thing that’s hanging), giving us, roughly, hanging stone as the name.

Then, English took “henge” from “Stonehenge,” and decided that “henge” is the technical term for a Neolithic monument of the British Isles that consists of a circle-shaped bank with an internal ditch. That’s fine, but Stonehenge features a circle-shaped bank with an external ditch.

The oversight here is forgivable—I can hardly keep the distinction straight, and I wouldn’t blame the folks who originally drew connections between Stonehenge and other, actual henges for doing so. Old round ditches are old round ditches, you know? You’d need a handy mnemonic henge limerick to help you keep that straight, and we have no such extant limerick.

I’d suggest simply loosening up that definition to include internal and external ditches, but, unfortunately, nobody asked me, and I don’t have any PhDs, so the terminology shall remain very confusing.

The most important thing is this: just don’t call it “Stonehedge.” Stonehenge is neither henge nor hedge. But also, it is a henge.


Further reading:

Alex Johnson Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson is a freelance writer who has been writing professionally for over 12 years but has been a critical geek for nearly 34. He also writes history books with curse words in them. Read Full Bio »